I tried never to think about sleeping. I had lived with the knowledge that if I ever went to sleep my soul would slip out of my body while I dreamed. Of course there would be those moments, where if I did not exert the greatest of efforts in keeping awake, I would accidentally fall asleep. But I never fell asleep willingly, it was always accidental. I was fairly certain that falling asleep accidentally poised no direct danger to my soul, but I never risked it. I had various strategies in keeping awake at night. I would lay with my eyes open, always with my eyes open, and think and listen and think and listen. Sometimes there were many things I could listen too, and (as those acquainted with sleepless nights well know) there were always many things that I could think of.
The windows were opened in the room I was laying in. I was in the South, and the air was thick and was like a hot humid blanket, that made it so you could practically sleep naked and be all the more comfortable by it. I could hear the frogs in the lake faraway, I could hear their muted moans, their cacophony of croaks. I had learned in school that frogs can only hear very particular frequencies and so at night, when you hear them croaking in a wild cacophony, to them it is as silent and as serene as listening to a river flow gently passed. I listened to the frogs croak and it helped me distract my mind. I didn’t know why I had come here, my father was here, but I did not want to see him.
I remembered when I was a boy, my father and I would go trout fishing in a nearby river. We’d stand at the place where the river met the lake. My job was to collect bait from the surroundings. I would lift up logs and look for beetles and worms that if you were not quick enough, would disappear in the soft Mississippian soil. Sometimes bait was very difficult to find. One time I found a salamander, it was so small in my hand, and neat and nimble. I admired it’s color and it’s feet, where every toe acted as an independent hand upon my fingers. I did not want to hook the salamander but my father had seen that I had caught one, and so implored me to hook him. I was young, and so I did as I was told. It hurt me to hook the salamander, there was something about the way in which the salamander’s toes grappled around the hook as it went through it’s body. My father said that salamanders made for very good fishing, but after that, I never hooked anymore salamanders. I would just look for other kinds of bait. Worms were my favorite, they always caught the biggest trout. Grasshoppers never stayed on the hook, neither did tadpoles, or woodmites. In this part of the south practically every time of the year was good for fishing. In the summer the fish were big and plump, though harder and trickier to catch. In the winter fishing was always easy because the fish were always hungry.
Sometimes standing in the tall grassy marshlands that led to the river bank, we’d see enormous flocks of ducks and geese migrating. It was always an overwhelming sight to see them, hundreds of thousands sometimes flying overhead and each one knew that you were there, watching them from faraway, admiring them even. My father knew how to make their calls and could call them down, and he knew how to read the wind and tell which direction our scent flew. He’d motion for me to get down and hide in the grasses, and I would, and he’d take out his rifle which was big and heavy and loud, and he’d make his bird calls, seducing the birds in the air to land nearby. I’d watch them land concealed under the grass and with a big bang my father would fire his rifle and shoot the bird with the best shot, and claim one or two or three more in midair as they scattered frantically away. My dad would leave them where they fell and we’d move on. Now the frogs were croaking in a lake nearby, and I could hear them speaking to one another, in what I can only imagine are like spells in the night.
But sometimes I could not think about trout fishing with my father, and I would lay awake, thinking about everyone who I ever loved. I would say a little prayer for them and that took a great deal of time. I would go back to the earliest love I could remember, and hope that they were well and healthy and happy and all the way up to the last love that had left me. When I was a very small child, I lived next door to a girl, the same age as me. I remembered the way in which in springtime we’d roll down a giant grassy hillside and feel the soft nimble grass bending under the contours of our bodies and the way in which we’d lose control as we fell and gathered velocity. It was the most innocent kind of play in the world. I would think about that sometimes and it would help me not to fall asleep. Every night I would go back far enough in my memory to occupy a great deal of time in thinking about people I had loved one by one. I would imagine that Time was kinder to them than it was to me but I was not hopeful that it was in actuality, I would just imagine that it was. I had much practice in staying awake at night, and so my imagination was very healthy.
I never slept any place where I could not keep a light close by. If there was no light nearby, my soul would certainly slip out of my body when I dreamed. Many times I had slept without knowing it, but because there was a light on, my soul did not know it had the chance to leave me. This was how I thought about it, but I never risked falling asleep purposefully even with a light on. I would lay with my eyes open and try to employ all the techniques I could in trying to stay awake. I tried never to think about the night in which my soul left me. It came back. But I tried to make sure it never had the chance to leave me again.
I would just lay awake and remember all the experiences of my life and imagine new ones and listen to the various noises of the night because there are always noises in the night. And so, listening to the frogs in conversation in the distance at the faraway lake, I would try to forget about my soul leaving my body. I looked out my window and saw the stars in the sky. In San Francisco, the city I was from, there were very few stars in the sky. I would look for them through my bayview window, and try to spot them, but usually all I could see was a kind of shade of gray. Now I could see the the stars and it seemed that the stars were as plentiful as anything in the universe, twinkling together in a brightened darkness. I looked at the stars, and this was something I never did in keeping awake at night, this was something new. I looked at the stars, and listened to the frogs and a strange kind of comfort fell over me with this new development. It was as if the frogs were singing to the stars and the stars were shining for the frogs.